Uprisings and betrayals: a brief history of the left in Iraq

The occupation of Iraq is leading to ever-increasing problems for US imperialism. A mass movement against the “liberators” has already started. At this stage a big role as organizers of the movement has been played by the Muslim clerics and mullahs. The main purpose of this article is to understand the history of the Iraqi Left, in order to help the best activists not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The occupation of Iraq is leading to ever-increasing problems for US imperialism. It is not as easy as they thought it was going to be. A mass movement against the “liberators” has already started. At this stage a big role as organizers of the movement has been played by the Muslim clerics and mullahs.

This is partly due to the fact that Saddam Hussein had smashed all opposition groups while he was in power and partly because of the mistakes of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) leadership.

The most frightening thing for the bourgeoisie on a world level is that the anti-colonial revolution has once again erupted. After Latin America, Algeria (Kabilya) and Palestine, it is now the turn of the Middle East. That explains why the media are feeding lies about the history of Iraq to the new generations. While they showed the pictures of the destruction of the first statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, the Spanish Tele5 TV channel said such things as, "The dictator had overthrown the monarchy in 1958". These are lies which hide the mass character of the movements in the colonial countries, both past and present.

The main purpose of this article is to expose the lies of the media and to understand the history of the Iraqi Left, in order to help the best activists not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The origins of the Iraqi Communist Party

The Iraqi Communist Party was founded in 1935, formed by the coming together of several anti-imperialist and left-wing groups around the country. Iraq became formally independent in 1932 but was in reality under the control of British Imperialism. In 1920 the British troops defeated a popular uprising, leaving (according to Lawrence) 10,000 dead in the streets.

In the 1930s some initial industrial development began, specifically in the oil and transport sectors. The working class however was still very weak. In 1940 13,000 workers were employed in the oilfields, 11,000 in the railways and 5,000 in the Basra docks. It is to the credit of the then young Communist Party that it quickly established links with this nascent proletariat. Since then, the ICP has remained the traditional organization of the Iraqi working class.

But the ICP was not immune from the process of political degeneration that affected the Third International. The turn in Moscow on foreign policy in 1941, after the Nazis had begun their invasion of the USSR, meant that every national section of the Communist International had to support the Allies. This was how the ICP came to develop the line of support for the British troops. According to an article that appeared in its journal in May 1942, “Our party considers the British Army, that is now fighting Nazism, as a liberation Army… We stand on the British side and so we must help the British Army in every possible way”. Thus the ICP came out in support of the monarchy and the landlords who ruled the country.

All the radical slogans disappeared from the Party programme, such as the call for the expropriation of foreign capital or for a republic. There was no longer any talk of a United Arab federation and, of course, the socialist perspective disappeared from the party’s propaganda.

The main feature of the ICP strategy from now on was to be the Stalinist “two stages” theory, first the stage of “national liberation” and “the struggle for democratic rights”, then, at a later stage, socialism. This meant the Party was involved in a desperate search for a “progressive” wing of the ruling class, with the disastrous consequences that this was to lead to.

With the end of World War II, the ICP changed its policy and began to criticise the British Army and the monarchy, reflecting the pressure that came from the growing radicalisation among the masses. These sudden 180 degree turns are another aspect that has characterised the history of the ICP.

In January 1948 there was the most impressive mass uprising in the history of the Iraqi monarchy, known as al-Wathbah. The movement was sparked off by the students and it later spread to the workers and to the peasants that occupied the land in many part of the country. Several huge demonstrations took place with tens of thousands on the streets. On January 27 the police shot dead between 300 to 400 hundred people, but this did not stop the protesters. The prime minister was forced to flee to Britain and a new government was formed.

In May a new wave of repression ended the protests with the declaration of martial law, but the main blow to the Party came when the USSR decided to recognize and support the new state of Israel in July 1948.

Moscow’s support for Israel had an incredible impact on all the communist parties in the Middle East. In Iraq hundreds of activists left the party in disgust. The Party declined from 4,000 members in early 1948 to just a few hundred. The repression was to affect the top-most leadership of the ICP. The party’s general secretary was executed in the main square of Baghdad.

The ICP leadership did not go as far as the Syrian Communist Party leaders, who actually dissolved the Party into the national liberation movement, but, nevertheless, they always subordinated the class struggle to the struggle for national independence. They did not understand that the two struggles were inextricably linked. The national bourgeoisie were so dependent on imperialism, that genuine independence could only be achieved through a socialist revolution. The capitalist were so closely tied to the landlords, that a genuine agrarian reform could only be achieved through the expropriation of the capitalists and the bankers.

After a brief period of infatuation with the Chinese revolution between 1953-55, when the ICP talked of the “seizure of power by the proletariat as an immediate task”, the dramatic turn of events in Egypt with the coming to power of Nasser caught the leadership by surprise. Now they once again took up the ideas of a so-called “patriotic government”.

The 1958 revolution

The history of the last few decades of Iraq resembles very much that of Syria and Egypt and it was part and parcel of the revolutionary movements that swept all the ex-colonial countries in the 1950s and 1960s. The Iraqi monarchy was overthrown on July 14, 1958 by a coup d’état carried out by military officers who had sympathies for the Nasser regime of Egypt and was headed by Colonel Abdul Salam Aref and General Abdel Karim el Kassem. On the same day huge mass demonstration (in Baghdad at least 100,000 people came out onto the streets) swept away the last remnants of the old regime. The royal family was killed.

The idea of these pan-Arabic nationalists, the “free officers”, was to follow the model of Nasser in Egypt, which consisted of a considerable degree of state intervention in the economy in order to create a strong national capitalist sector. Aref and Kassem took advantage of the anti-imperialist and revolutionary sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Iraqi workers and youth. As we have already explained, until July 1958, Iraq had been a pro-imperialist feudal monarchy.

Eighty per cent of the population was made up of illiterate peasants and 56 per cent of the population suffered from malnutrition. Forty-nine families owned 17 per cent of the land and were kept in power thanks to the backing of the western monopolies.

Feeling the pressure from below, Aref in the stormy days of August 1958 was forced to adopt revolutionary sounding phraseology such as the call for “ a popular, socialist republic”. All the trade unions and parties were legalised.

An agrarian reform was introduced thanks to the 1958 coup, but it did not go far enough. It only tackled this question partially: it did not provide cheap credits to the peasants to acquire the necessary machinery, it did not collectivize the agriculture and as a result the impoverished peasants swarmed to the cities looking for work. Under mass pressure the new government was forced to reform the education system, health care and housing. But again, the attacks on the privileges of the capitalists were only partial. For instance, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, the IPC, was left in the hands of four companies belonging to Britain, France, the Netherlands and the USA.

In the period of 1961-64 the Kurds (whose strongest organization was the Communist Party) demanded autonomy and the sharing of the control over the oil of the north. Kassem refused this. If a clear appeal had been made to place the oil industry under workers’ management, to give the land to the peasants, to grant self-determination to the Kurds and for a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, this would have allowed Iraq to become the spearhead of a movement throughout the whole region against landlordism and capitalism. It would have been the beginning of the all-Arab socialist revolution.

The Communist Party was not a part of the new “free officers” government, but its leadership wanted to join it. In the words of Amer Abdallah, the main theoretician of the ICP until 1961: “Our party supports the economic interests of the national bourgeoisie as a fundamental condition for the development of a democratic bourgeois state. The task of the revolution is to establish social and economic reforms within the framework of capitalist relations of production.”

In its desperate search for a so-called “productive national bourgeoisie” in that period the ICP even rejected the call for a federation with Syria and Egypt! This led to the paradoxical situation where the Iraqi “Communist” Party had placed itself to the right of the pan-Arabists, such as Nasser!

At the same time inside Iraq, the party was critical of the partial agrarian reform and defended strongly the rights of the workers. In spite of having suffered the most ruthless repression over a period of years, it still was able to emerge as a force with a mass influence. In 1959 it had 25,000 members and “controlled the streets of Baghdad” according to foreign reporters. Out of 3,500 “peasant societies”, 60% were controlled by the ICP. Its youth front reached 84,000 members in the spring of 1959.

On Mayday 1959 one million people marched through Baghdad behind the banners of the ICP. Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, described the situation in Iraq as “the most dangerous in the present-day world.” The Communist Party could easily have overthrown the regime, but when this replied with a wave of repression the party buckled under. The leadership ceased any criticism of the government. Now it declared that the agrarian reform was a good one.

This was a decisive turning point in the fortunes of the ICP. Its preparedness to compromise with the regime did not avoid the final clash; it only postponed it for four years. In those four years, thanks to its compromising position and unwillingness to lead the struggle, the party was weakened and its mass base disappeared.

Hundreds of communists were put in jail and killed. The Communist press was prohibited (that is how Kassem thanked them for their class collaboration!). The membership of the youth front controlled by the ICP fell to 20,000 members by 1960. Incredibly, the ICP leaders still continued to support Kassem’s regime! One example of their behaviour is when Kassem came out of hospital after having recovered from an attempt on his life. The ICP organized a welcoming home rally for Kassem outside the hospital!

By February 1963, on the eve of Aref’s coup, which was carried out with the help of the Ba’ath Party, the ICP had been reduced to a mere 8,000 members, of which 5,000 were based in the capital. The Communists tried to organise the resistance but Kassem refused to distribute weapons to the population. The repression that ensued was brutal. Seven thousands members of the ICP were imprisoned! There were a number of splits from the party and the national structures of the party organisation disintegrated.

The various stages in the development Iraqi Bonapartism

On coming to power the Baathists tried to legitimize their position before the masses by proclaiming themselves as "socialists". In 1964 the regime was compelled to sign a truce with the Kurdish people and to nationalise some sectors of industry and all the banking and insurance system. But some of these measures were withdrawn two years later. The whole history of the country between 1963 and 1968 was a history of one coup after another, during which the national bourgeoisie, which was already very weak, was completely annihilated by the struggles within the army.

In spite of this, the ICP still insisted on its policy of seeking a “progressive wing” within the ruling military elite. It spent its time shifting its support from one wing to another often quite suddenly. They placed their hopes especially in the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath Party. This position eventually led to a Maoist split from the ICP in 1967. This split, some hundreds strong, was later to go down the road of guerrilla warfare.

The desperate attempts of the ICP leadership to identify a “progressive wing” within the national bourgeoisie were doomed to failure. For indeed, how could a backward Iraq eliminate poverty and become a stable democracy on a capitalist basis when imperialism was squeezing every penny of profit out of it? The nascent Iraqi capitalist class was too weak, it had come too late onto the stage of history to be able to play its own independent role and introduce the reforms which would have given it any real basis of support. Only through the socialist revolution, with the expropriation the industries from the capitalists and the implementation of a democratic socialist plan of production, could Iraq have started to deal with its problems. However, because of the imperialist domination of the world market, this would have meant that an Iraqi socialist revolution would have had to be seen as the first step in an international struggle for workers' democracy. This perspective terrorized the weak Iraqi bourgeoisie and its representatives in the government.

In the period 1968-74 the new Al-Bakr government (from the Tikrit Baathist clique) was forced to sign a peace agreement with the Kurds and to nationalize the oil industry, banning foreigners from owning any kind of property. These measures had an initial effect. The living conditions of the working class did improve in the early seventies. That was the period when the government turned towards the Soviet Union, looking for help in its attempt to develop its oil industry and build up its own national bourgeoisie.

Under the advice of Moscow, the ICP leaders entered into an alliance with the Ba’ath Party, looking for a “non-capitalist way of development”. Saddam Hussein was portrayed as the “national liberation hero” which the ICP leaders had been waiting for, for so long. A combination of factors forced the regime to put up a left face. Thus, for a period the regime had to accept the presence of Communist Party and Kurdish ministers in the government. But the honeymoon was a very short one. The Baathists used the support of the Communist leaders to their own advantage. With the left cover provided by the ICP, the regime was able to carry out the first counter reforms and by the late seventies it felt confident enough to launch a new wave of repression, and at the beginning of 1978 a new clampdown on communist forces began.

Where did Saddam come from?

Because of the 1973 crisis in the Middle East, the defeat of the USA in Vietnam and the world economic slump of 1974-75, imperialism was incapable of intervening in Iraq. The sharp increase in oil prices which ensued had a dramatic effect on the country. In the previous 20 years profits from oil had steadily increased four-fold reaching the modest figure of US$572 million. Now these profits shot up dramatically reaching US$26,5 billion by 1980.

Between 1974-78, the government embarked on a programme of privatization of large-scale industry in order to strengthen the private sector, which trebled as a result. In 1980 there were 700 multimillionaires in Iraq. The Iraqi state became a milch cow for the wealthy families. The Saddam clan had become very rich and possessed enormous stretches of land and a large number of companies in the textile sector. While the usurers and embezzlers had been pampered by the state, the working class was forced to suffer terrible repression, with the banning of freedom of speech, of trade union activity and political parties. Kurdistan became like an internal colony of Iraq.

It was in 1979 that Saddam Hussein succeeded Al-Bakr. One of his first measures was to forcibly remove a million Kurds under his "arabisation" plan. The Kurds rose up and Saddam was only able to put down the revolt with the help of the USA and 150,000 Turkish soldiers which NATO had sent to Iraq. Egypt, Sudan and Yemen also sent troops.

At the same time, the fear that Islamic fundamentalism might spread from Iran to their own impoverished masses prompted the Kuwaiti and Saudi dictatorships to grant credits to Iraq to the tune of US$60 billion. The USSR also increased its aid.

Despite all this, for a period of five years the regime lost control over Kurdistan. Without any of this foreign backing, Saddam would have fallen. But he did not fall and decided to divert attention away from the internal problems by invading Iran. In this he had the enthusiastic support of the imperialist powers.

In Iran the 1979 revolution had overthrown the pro-imperialist monarchy of the Shah. Unfortunately, because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership, and thanks also to the policies of the Tudeh (Iranian Communist Party), the revolution was derailed and power fell into the hands of the fundamentalist mullahs. Thus, after the revolution, the local bourgeoisie together with the religious hierarchy organized the massacre of the workers' organizations starting with the powerful Tudeh itself - with the silent complicity of Moscow.

But imperialism wanted to go further and erase any revolutionary memory that remained among the Iranian masses. And, although the reactionary Islamic fundamentalist regime that had come to power in Iran had been useful in crushing the organizations of the Iranian labour movement, the western imperialists did not trust this regime for it had its own interests that were coming into conflict with those of the major capitalist powers. They were worried about the new fundamentalist regime that had emerged and that explains why they supported Saddam right from the beginning in his war against Iran. The war lasted for nine years, without any side winning. The war left Iraq with a foreign debt of US$80 billion and a million dead.

The peace that followed revealed the real economic cost of the war and Saddam also had to deal with the drop in oil prices. Iraq was losing US$10 million a day. Inflation was growing, shortages were spreading, and conspiracies and dissent were intensifying. Again Saddam Hussein was looking for an external factor with which to divert attention away from his own internal problems. These were the reasons why Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990. But the weakening and later collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European bloc had created the conditions for a new offensive of imperialism on a world scale. And Iraqi oil was one of its targets. This was one of the reasons for the first Gulf War.

The present situation

With 70 per cent of the population concentrated in the cities and a working class with powerful revolutionary traditions going back to the 1920s, a great deal of the potential forces for carrying out the anti-colonial and socialist tasks in the Middle East are to be found in Iraq. But the ICP has still not recovered from the repression it suffered back in 1979. Over the last ten years its organizational structures have been confined almost completely to the free Kurdish region in the north.

There has been no real discussion inside the party about the mistakes of the past. The party opposed the recent war of the US against Iraq and it also opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately this does not mean that it has taken up a clear class position. It demands a prominent role for the UN, as we can read in the most recent ICP statement:

"In order to set up the transition[al] democratic coalition government, the occupation of our country must first end, with power being handed to an interim UN administration... one whose task would be, first and foremost, to call for a conference for representatives of the forces of our Iraqi people, their political parties and other constituents, and to supervise convening this conference in which agreement would be reached on setting up the coalition government and its makeup." (www.iraqcp.org 20-4-2003)

In spite of these weaknesses in the positions of the ICP leadership, there is still a burning need for a workers’ party in Iraq, and a thirst for such a party among the Iraqi workers. This has been confirmed by the publication in Baghdad of the Communist Party newspaper, the “People’s Path”. It was actually the first new newspaper to be published in the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi working class, which has been brutalised by the imperialist bombings, will rise up again. There is no doubt about this. It has a glorious past and it will return to its traditions. This time Stalinism is in a much weaker position. Its old ideas of a "respectable" national bourgeoisie have been discredited over and over again by event themselves. The Ba'ath Party has disintegrated and cannot play the role it played in the past. Unfortunately, because of the weakness of the Iraqi labour movement (both politically and on the trade union front) in the immediate period the leadership of the anti-imperialist movement is falling into the hands of the mullahs. But this will not last for ever. The Iraqi workers and youth will learn from there own experience (as we are witnessing in Iran) that Islamic fundamentalism offers no way out.

Thus, over a period, organizations like the ICP can play an important role in organizing the Iraqi workers and youth. This time the movement must not be diverted from the tasks of the socialist transformation of the country and of the whole of the Middle East.

April 29, 2003

Note: Ilario Salucci’s book “Operai e contadini in Iraq: il percorso del movimento comunista” (in Italian) was very useful source of information in writing this article.

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